Her Excellency Sara Al Madani does it all – a mother, wife entrepreneur, motivational speaker, business manager, fashion designer, CEO, tech-innovator and more.
This young woman has accomplished so much at a young age, starting her first business at the age of just 15, and is paving the way for the next generation of Emiratis to do the same. She ventured into the business world when most Emirati women were afraid to do so. Breaking stereotypes and defying gender and cultural norms she never looks back only forward to the next challenge. Today she has many businesses, her latest being a technology and robotics company that is changing the way we use technology in our day-to-day lives.
In a year when we all faced challenges, Dr Sara Al Madani sees them as opportunities and her entrepreneurial spirit allows her to take leaps and move on to the next thing when others are dwelling on their failures. Throughout the pandemic, Al Madani has been looking at ways she can maximise the potential of her business and explore new ways of working. We discover what are her secrets to being a positive, successful and opportunistic businesswoman.
This year has been a strange year for all – what is something you have learnt from this period?
I am an extremely positive person and I have total control of my emotions – if I can’t do something about it why worry? And if I can do something about it why worry? So I don’t worry about anything. When the COVID situation started, of course, the business was hit, the economy was hit and everything went bad, but to be honest I’ve been through worse! I’ve dealt with bankruptcy and two recessions, so I knew that when things hit rock bottom, my heart and mind would always be there so I can pick up easily. I call it the “nest effect”, because as a bird when the wind blows your way if you know how to build a nest you will build it anywhere.
With situations like these, I think of it as though I am a student of life. I don’t see it as a negative. So when the crisis came, I started questioning where my opportunities were. As a businesswoman, I decided to focus on where I can grow at a time when a lot of businesses were struggling to stay alive. To be completely honest they didn’t all go bankrupt because they didn’t have the money to survive, it was because their business model didn’t fit the new one required to succeed today. You have Uber for example who owns no cars or drivers, compared with something like Avis who owns all their drivers and cars. So there is a lot more to lose and the business can’t be adapted easily. But to me, when I see this happening I start drooling as an entrepreneur because I know the field is open for me to play! In any crisis, there is always an opportunity for people who thrive and who can solve problems.
The most important thing I learnt during this time is that it’s OK not to be busy. Because I was always on fast-forward. I used to feel that if I wasn’t doing anything, I wasn’t being productive and I have managed to change my mindset on this and change my priorities and the way I look at life. I am a very spiritual person and I have been trying to find ways to upgrade myself throughout this time and it has been a beautiful learning experience.
Have you changed any of the ways you plan to do business moving forward?
The culture within my companies has never been a corporate culture. I believe in leadership and I believe in people. I already knew that people could do the same work at home, but what I have just realised is where money was wasted. I used to spend so much money as a company in creating a great atmosphere; a beautiful office etc. and now I see that it is not necessary at all. There are so many ways that you can be connected with your team and I realised that letting go of these attachments really allows things to work. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a beautiful office or at home on a kitchen table. So the way we spend money within the business has completely changed. Even when it comes to employees, we are open to hiring part-timers as this is something that works and allows the employees to have flexibility.
How would you define success?
Success is asking ‘what have I done for myself and what have I done for others?’ It is not about certificates on the wall or trophies on the shelf. I know so many people who are so successful and have made a lot of money, but they’re not happy because they haven’t found their purpose in life. A lot of people tell me I’m selfless because I keep talking about giving and helping others, but what people don’t understand is that when I do that for people, I’m not being selfless, I’m being selfish – because that action feeds my soul. But at least I’m selfish by doing something beneficial for others!
With every success comes setbacks and failures – how do you deal with these setbacks and stay motivated?
I’m releasing a book soon called “The Mango Tree”. In this book, I talk about how I downloaded the best version of me. One of the chapters looks at how I discipline myself with failure. What people need to understand is that failure is an emotion – it’s anger inside. Just like any emotion in your life, you need to get it out of your system physically. You can’t just sit down and change your mindset. I have something called the 48-hour rule where for 48 hours I give myself the green light to do anything I want to express my emotions. This can be going to the beach and screaming, boxing, going to a room and breaking glass – as long as it takes that emotion physically out of my body. Then after that period, I discipline myself focus on the solutions.
We all grew up thinking that failure is something we should be ashamed of. And our reaction is to blame someone or something else for our failures so we can feel better about it. This mindset is completely wrong because if you play the blame game, you don’t get anywhere. So when I fail, I sit down and think about what my contribution to this failure has been. I cannot change anybody else, all I can change is me and what I did to add to this failure. So I write down where I went wrong and once I do this, I can start learning. Failure is a step towards the ladder of success and if someone tells you they’ve made it without any failures, they’re lying. I don’t understand why people take failure personally – if you failed it’s because an ingredient is missing you need to work out what that is and do it in a new way.
What advice would you give to anyone afraid to take risks?
You’re willing to take risks all the time. Driving your car in the morning is a risk. So why don’t you take other risks? Because you don’t know for certain what the outcome will be. It doesn’t mean you should not take it. You take risks every day, but the only risk that might change your life and be spectacular is the only one you don’t want to take? It doesn’t make sense. If I don’t take risks, I cannot sleep at night! Knowing that there was an opportunity that I could have taken and I didn’t kills me. Every risk has a 50/50 chance and we shouldn’t be focusing on what if it fails. Focus on what if it works and you become a better person from this.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
I don’t like to link myself to one specific achievement. To me, every day is an achievement. If I come home and I’m still alive and I’m healthy, I celebrate. I celebrate every single success, small or big! If you teach yourself to do this, you’ll feel good about every single thing you do. What kills me is when I meet people who don’t want to celebrate every success; don’t be so hard on yourself.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
So much! I only live once and I want to try every single possible thing in the world. When I think I cannot do something I limit my possibilities, but if I’ve tried everything then at least I know.
We know you wear many hats – how do you manage your time and ensure a work/life balance?
I do not believe in a work/life balance. As beautiful as it sounds, it’s a myth. The balance is different for every individual person. It’s the balance that you create for yourself that you are happy and comfortable with. It shouldn’t be affected by the opinion of others as long as you are happy you don’t need to judge your balance against anyone else.
What is a challenge you have faced throughout your journey and how did you overcome it?
I’m a positive person so every challenge that comes my way does not last a long time. I think the biggest challenge, which isn’t a problem in my mind, but sadly it is in the world, is gender. Me being a woman and people thinking that I don’t belong in a masculine industry. If I see this as a problem I will get emotional, so I just see it as a bump in the road that I cross and move on. It is something I face a lot, but do I take it to heart? No way!
Do you think the opinion towards women in business has changed in the Middle East?
Everyone can see the change, but what people don’t understand is that this change is slow. I live in a country where my leaders are praising women and fighting for their equal rights, then you have the media who are champions for women – everyone if rooting for women, but the main cause of damage is what happens inside you home and throughout your upbringing. If your parents raised you to believe in a certain way, all the efforts on the outside are wasted. This is why it’s so hard to change people whose mentality is old, but it’s so easy to change young people. I talk about gender equality with my son all the time. So with the future generations, we will truly see the change.
How do you think your background and heritage has helped to shape up who you are today?
I don’t know if it inspired me but what I know is that I started walking when I was just nine months old. Then I started speaking at ten months. My father told me I always acted older than my age. When I was four I used to run a business at home, massaging family members for money! Then by the time I was 8 I used to hire my cousins to work as sales reps so I could re-sell candy that I bought from the store! My dad tells me that what’s scary is how I managed the whole internal process at that age. It’s something a child doesn’t do. I don’t know if it’s my heritage, my genetics, I have no idea, but it’s something innate. No one in my family has a business, I’m the only one like this.
What are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to see from you for the rest of the year?
Right now I’m focusing on my tech start-up company, which is an entertainment platform, called HalaHi. I’m putting all my energy and focus into that and I also have a robotics company in Los Angeles that I’m focussing on. So I’m focusing on the work that is technology-related because that doesn’t require any human interaction at all.
If you could look back, what is something that you would tell your younger self?
Don’t regret or change anything just keep doing it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
What you’re looking for is looking for you.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
Stay in the right mindset.
What or who inspires you?
Me! If you think about it, I started my journey when I was young and my family did not believe in me at that point. No one was there at the beginning and I was the only one there for myself. I think self-love is the most important.
What message would you give to anyone that’s at the beginning of his or her business journey?
Just go for it. Stop asking others how they did it because how they did it does not work for you. The journey is not easy, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.